Of bird dogs and back pain
Most of the literature on the subject suggests that 80% of people will suffer from at least one episode of back pain sometime in their life. No matter what the underlying reason is that causes the pain, one of the muscles that is often involved is the multifidus or plural, multifidi.
The multifidi can be found running along the right and left sides of the spine. From the axis, or the neck vertebrae C-2, all the way down to the sacrum, each multifidus section spans three vertebral segments and helps to stabilize the spine. Because of the placement of the muscle attachments, when both sides contract the multifidi help with spinal extension and fine-tuning of movements. When only one side contracts, you rotate to the opposite side. For example if your thoracic multifidi contract on the right, your torso will rotate (or be stabilized rotating and/or fine-tuning) to the left. As we all know, that is called contralateral rotation and a knot in a contralateral rotator can inhibit the ability to rotate to the same side.
Since it is hunting season, I’ve been observing my dog’s movement patterns. She’s a natural athlete. When she points I observe her nose, spine and tail in perfect alignment as her multifidi and spinal muscles contract. Her strong core allows balance as her front leg is raised. And she can get into position immediately, without a second thought, with excellent balance, over all kinds of terrain, for hours. Amazing!
Of course, it wasn’t just the dog’s multifidi that were contracted, but her other spinal muscles, and glutes too. I noticed that the dog was lengthened through the hip flexors –very important to have length here to avoid too much swaying of the low back. Anatomically, there was a lot going on. It got me thinking that perhaps muscles are only named and defined to ease our ability to describe sensation or one specific action. The thing is, I can’t think of any real-life action in which only one muscle moves. It makes more sense to think in terms of a kinetic chain. The hip bone is connected to the back bone, the back bone is connected to the neck bone…
If you have performed any bodyweight exercises you may have done an exercise called bird-dog, in which you performed a movement similar to the pointer. Bird-dog can be a great exercise to strengthen the multifidi and other muscles that run along the spine, but there is more to it. Our muscles are connected to each other and organs by fascia, a strong, fibrous connective tissue. Our muscles and fascia work together to provide smooth movement along a kinetic chain. In a position like bird-dog, the lats on the arm-up side must be able to stretch, which requires the arm rotating muscles of the shoulder to have an acceptable range-of-motion. The (usually weak) glutes must be strong enough to extend the hip. Activation of the glutes can happen almost immediately, however, when the hip flexors are stretched.
A good massage can help improve your back pain and help your muscles function better. Additionally, your bird dog might recover faster and enjoy improved endurance if you spend a little time treating his or her muscles to massage.
Gina McCafferty is a licensed massage therapist, and heath coach who works with women in their peri and menopausal years who have 30 or more pounds to lose.